Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was a self-taught man who sought adventure and glory. Believing in prophecies, he was convinced that his destiny lay in discovering a route to the East (the ‘Indies’) by sailing westwards. He was inspired by reading Imago Mundi (a work on astronomy and geography) by Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly written in 1410. He submitted his plans to the Portuguese Crown, only to have them turned down. He had better luck with the Spanish authorities who sanctioned a modest expedition that set sail from the port of Palos on 3 August 1492. Nothing, however, prepared Columbus and his crew for the long Atlantic crossing that they embarked upon, or for the destination that awaited them. The fleet was small, consisting of a small nao called Santa Maria, and two caravels (small light ships) named Pinta and Nina. Columbus himself commanded the Santa Maria along with 40 capable sailors. The outward journey enjoyed fair trade winds but was long. For 33 days, the fleet sailed without sight of anything but sea and sky. By this time, the crew became restive and some of them demanded that they turn back.
On 12 October 1492, they sighted land; they had reached what Columbus thought was India, but which was the island of Guanahani in the Bahamas. (It is said that this name was given by Columbus, who described the Islands as surrounded by shallow seas, baja mar in Spanish.) They were welcomed by the Arawaks, who were happy to share their food and provisions; in fact, their generosity made a deep impression upon Columbus. As he wrote in his log-book, ‘They are so ingenuous and free with all they have, that no one would believe it who has not seen of it, anything they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no, on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it’. Columbus planted a Spanish flag in Guanahani (which he renamed
San Salvador), held a prayer service and, without consulting the local people, proclaimed himself viceroy. He enlisted their cooperation in pressing forward to the larger islands of Cubanascan (Cuba, which he thought was Japan!) and Kiskeya (renamed Hispaniola, today divided between two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Gold was not immediately available, but the explorers had heard that it could be found in Hispaniola, in the mountain streams in the interior. But before they could get very far, the expedition was overtaken by accidents and had to face the hostility of the fierce Carib tribes. The
men clamoured to get back home. The return voyage proved more difficult as the ships were worm-eaten and the crew tired and homesick.
The entire voyage took 32 weeks. Three more voyages followed, in the course of which Columbus completed his explorations in the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, the South American mainland and its coast. Subsequent voyages revealed that it was not the ‘Indies’ that the Spaniards had found, but a new continent. Columbus’s achievement had been to discover the boundaries of what seemed like infinite seas and to demonstrate that five weeks’ sailing with the trade wind took one to the other side of the globe. Since places are often given the names of individuals, it is curious that Columbus is commemorated only in a small district in the USA and in a country in north-western South America (Columbia), though he did not reach either of these areas. The two continents were named after Amerigo Vespucci, a geographer from Florence who realised how large they might be, and described them as the ‘New World’. The name ‘America’ was first used by a German publisher in 1507.